Photo: Lilyana VinogradovaJoana Cortez and Samantha Barijan (BRA)
Being the second best team in the world in beach tennis was not something that sat comfortably with Brazil, but the 2013 world champion had the good grace to accept that, for the time being at least, Italy was better than them.
What it wasn’t prepared for was to finish off the podium completely at the 2015 ITF World Team Championship in Moscow last week.
For a country whose name is as synonymous with beach sports as the name Pele is with football it was a huge blow to its pride, but Guilherme Prata, Brazil’s captain, had the courage afterwards to admit that his team just weren’t good enough.
There is a camaraderie in beach tennis that is possibly without equal in any other sport and Alessandro Calbucci, the Italian world No. 1, was by no means attempting to rub Brazil’s nose in it when, in Italy’s moment of triumph last Sunday, he alluded to Brazil’s lack of team ethic. He knew that without such a quality there was no way Italy would have beaten Russia in the final.
Calbucci, who dared to hint that Brazil was no longer its biggest rival, said: “The Brazilians should learn from this. When you play this kind of competition your opponents are stronger than usual because they are representing their nation, so you have to be a group otherwise you mess up.”
Prata would have seconded that if he hadn’t already been the first to mention it earlier in the day after Brazil had lost the third-place match to Spain 2-0.
“The biggest lesson we have to learn is that everybody is getting better,” he said. “Brazil has been one of the main countries in the beach tennis world and we need to improve ourselves as well. If not, we’re going to fall behind just like this year.
“We have to understand that this is a team effort. I think the teams that were ahead of us [Italy, Russia and Spain] were better teams than individuals; they had a better concept and team spirit than we had.”
What Prata and the Brazilian management have to decide now is whether they can create that spirit within the existing team or whether they need to build a new team in order to achieve it. Prata seemed to hint at the latter as being the answer.
“We have our own problems inside the team, but I’m not going to talk about that,” he said. “I really think I do a good job. I’ve been trying to manage the different egos and the different situations in the team.
“I had to take some very hard decisions for the semis and the third-place and they didn’t pay off – well half of them didn’t – so I have to live with that now.
“We have to solve some stuff and probably begin thinking about a new generation of players, new blood for the team next year and hopefully we’ll get our spot back – at least in the final!”
As he said, the loss to Spain in two straight matches – which he admitted surprised him - was possibly due to a psychological hangover, induced by Brazil’s defeat to Russia the night before.
“I think it was a lot to do with being caught short-handed against Russia,” said Prata. “We were not completely focussed, not completely happy about playing for third place.”
Even Italy, who dominated the sport long before it came under the ITF’s umbrella eight years ago, almost fell off its pedestal against the fast-improving Russians. Marco Garavini and Calbucci had pulled up short in the men’s doubles and it took the level-headed Federica Bacchetta to steady the ship in the deciding mixed doubles.
Perhaps no-one should be too surprised that team work was the key element. After all, it was the world team championship.